I’ve practiced Karate for many years and it was only when a fellow karateka mentioned that he also studied Tai Chi that I wanted to find out about this other martial art. Tai Chi is performed in what appears to be slow motion as the practitioner gracefully transitions between different techniques and stances. I thought it would be useful to compare tai chi v karate.
Similarities between Tai Chi and Karate
Is Tai Chi like karate?
When Tai Chi and Karate are first examined they appear to have a number of similarities: they both have their origins in China, they are both combat arts, they both have set patterns of techniques (forms or kata), and they both involve mental focus. Let’s look at these more closely.
Both Originate in China
Tai Chi developed in China and an early form of this martial art was practised and developed as early as 500 BC by followers of Taoist philosophy. Its modern form can be historically traced to Cheng Wang Ting as the originator of the Chen Tai Chi style in the 1600s.
Karate developed in the Ryukyu Islands located on the South-West tail of Japan. The islands had enjoyed close diplomatic relationships with China since the 14th Century and they shared their knowledge of technology, science and martial arts.
The main martial art that was imported from China was White Crane Kung Fu, which had developed in Southern China. Over time, this merged with the islanders own fighting style, Te, and laid the foundations of what we know as Karate.
This shared lineage is event from some of the katas or forms in the two martial arts. Karate’s ‘Sanchin’ kata is very similar to White Crane’s ‘Happoren’ form.
Both are striking arts
Whilst Tai Chi may appear to be a graceful, slow motion dance, the patterns performed do actually consist of punches and kicks, as well as defensive blocking techniques. Tai Chi originated as a combat system and its techniques have been preserved in it’s forms.
Karate is well known as a striking art with an array of kicks, punches and elbow strikes. Perhaps the most iconic image of Karate is a practitioner (a karateka) smashing blocks of concrete with a knife hand strike (a Karate chop).
Both have set technique patterns
Tai Chi and Karate both have set patterns of movement in which kicks, blocks and punches are performed against an imaginary opponent. In Tai Chi, these set routines are called forms, whereas in karate they are called katas.
These fixed routines allow the practitioner to practice their techniques when they are alone. They allow the individual to perfect their offensive and defensive movements. They are highly prescribed patterns and no deviation from the set pattern is allowed.
In both martial arts, there are competitions held in which individuals are judged on how well they perform the particular form or kata.
Both involve mental focus
These forms and kata aren’t simply a routine that the individual performs mindlessly: moving from one stance to another with little thought.
Rather they are regarded as forms of “moving meditation” whereby the practitioner is focussed on their technique and being present in the moment. I know when I perform katas I become lost in the movement to the extent that you don’t become distracted by your surroundings.
Is Tai Chi just slow karate?
Given these similarities, it would be easy to conclude that Tai Chi and Karate are identical martial arts with one, Tai Chi, being performed in a very slow deliberate fashion. However, this would be incorrect as there are a number of key differences.
Differences between Tai Chi and Karate
There are a number of key differences between these two martial arts that we will discuss below.
Speed of performance
Perhaps the most obvious is the speed at which these two arts are performed.
Tai Chi consists of slow, sweeping movements as the practitioner transitions from each technique in the form.
In contrast, Karate is quick and dynamic. Even during the katas, the karateka is required to execute each technique will full force as though they were confronting a real life opponent. The techniques are performed at fighting speed and at the conclusion of each technique the body is fully tensed (a technique called ‘Kime’) at the point of impact; this channels the entire force of the body into the technique.
Soft v Hard
Tai Chi is considered a ‘soft’ martial art. Strong, forceful attacks are met with soft yielding defensive movements. The power of the incoming strike is absorbed by the block and its force dissipated. It is like a tall tree bending and swaying in a strong wind. If the tree remained rigid, it would snap but by yielding it remains unaffected by the onslaught.
Karate is a ‘hard’ martial art. Punches and kicks are met with equally powerful blocks. For instance, ‘Age Uke’, a rising block designed to counter attacks to the head, if done strongly enough, is capable of breaking the arm of the attacker.
Serious karateka will spend time conditioning their bodies using a technique known as ‘iron bone training’ – I’ve written about it here. The aim is to condition and harden their bodies so that they become a human weapon.
Straight v Arcing movements
Karate consists of straight, linear attacks and blocks. The idea being that the quickest route between two points is a straight line. For instance, when performing Gyaku-zuki (reverse punch), the fist starts on the hip and moves in a straight line to either the head (Jodan) or mid section (Chudan). This is very much in keeping with its ‘hard’ style.
Tai Chi, on the other hand, consists of flowing arcing movements. It is these curved movements that allow its blocking techniques to absorb the force of the oncoming attack. Tai Chi’s offensive strikes also follow this same arced pattern and have been likened to a ‘crashing wave’. It is quite a natural way for the body to move as all the limbs rotate around a fixed point – the joint.
Tai Chi is strongly based on Taoism which was developed from the teachings of Lao Tzu. In Chinese the word Tao means ‘the Way’. The principle belief of this system is to live in accordance with the natural order of the universe. Taoists worship deities and the main goal is to achieve balance and to reach immortality by following ‘the Way’.
In contrast, Karate has its spiritual roots in Zen Buddhism. Buddhism is a religion from ancient India, and is an offshoot of Hinduism. dating back to the sixth century BC. In contrast to Taoism, according to Buddhism, there is no god and the goal is to overcome suffering and attain enlightenment, known as Nirvana
Are Karate and Tai Chi effective martial arts?
When looking at this we are purely considering whether these different martial arts are suitable self defense systems.
Today the majority of Tai Chi practitioners practice the art for the physical and mental health benefits. The fighting aspect of this martial art has largely been forgotten and very few schools teach the combat techniques that are encoded within its forms. There is little to no actual sparring involved in Tai Chi and the focus is on perfecting the performance of the various forms.
Modern Tai Chi also bears limited relation to its historical lineage. Over time, the patterns have been simplified and shortened to make the art more accessible and to help increase its popularity.
Karate remains relatively intact. It has branched out into a number of different schools eg Kyokushin, Shotokan, Goju-ryu, but the combat element of the martial art has remained intact. Most styles incorporate an element of sparring into art which is actual taste of what physical confrontation is like.
Perhaps the biggest test of whether these styles are effective is to see whether any of the successful MMA practitioners have incorporated these styles into their fighting repertoire.
The popularity of Mixed Martial Arts has soared in recent decades. It’s no longer like the early days of UFC where you’d have a karate master pitted against a BJJ opponent. Fighters today adopt more of a hybrid approach incorporating a number of techniques from different styles into their repertoire.
However, many MMA fighters do have a root martial art. This is often the first martial art they learned before incorporating other techniques. Lyoto Machida is perhaps the most famous Karate exponent who has been in the UFC. He has been a former UFC Light Heavyweight Champion, as well as a UFC Middleweight Championship title challenger. He’s now high up in the Bellator Light Heavyweight Rankings.
Lyoto’s root style is Shotokan karate, but he has also incorporated ground fighting techniques. His karate techniques really stand out when you watch him fight, as you can see in the following video.
In contrast, there are no MMA fighters that have adopted Tai Chi as their root martial art. As I’ve mentioned, Tai Chi has strayed far from its original martial roots and it is now mainly practiced for its physical and mental benefits.
There’s no sparring in Tai Chi so its practitioners have very little understanding of what it’s like to be in any sort of actual physical confrontation.
The ineffectiveness of Tai Chi in a combat situation is evident from the following footage.
Summary: Tai Chi v Karate
Tai Chi and Karate have a number of similarities: they both have their origins in China; they are both combat arts; they both have set patterns of techniques (forms or kata), and they both involve mental focus. However, there are a number of key differences: their speed of performance; one is a ‘hard’ style, the other soft; linear vs arced movements; differing spiritual roots, and certainly one is more effective than the other in a combat situation.
What do you wear for Tai Chi?
No special uniform is required for Tai Chi and most schools will allow you to train in any loose fitting clothes that allow you to move freely without restriction. In time, you may want to purchase one of the traditional uniforms such as the one here (link to Amazon).
It’s important to use non-slip shoes for Tai Chi. Some of the stances can be quite wide and you certainly don’t want to slip and lose your balance. The types of shoes below are particularly comfortable – more details are available here on Amazon.